Colorado Startup Robauto Tries to Help Autistic People Using Robots

3/7/14Follow @MichaelXBD

It can be notoriously hard for people with autism to communicate with other people and interact with the world around them. But a Boulder, CO-based entrepreneur thinks he may have found a solution that could make it a little easier for some—and that solution is a small robot that’s cheap enough for families to use in their homes.

Jalali Hartman is “chief human” at Robauto, a robotics startup that’s new in town, having recently relocated from Florida. Hartman presented Tuesday night at the Boulder New Tech Meetup, where he outlined the company’s vision to make robots for the healthcare industry—and its early focus on people with autism.

It’s not a new idea; social robotics has been an active field for years. But early testing has shown that using the company’s robots can improve the communication and interaction skills of some autistic children and adults, he said.

“There’s this remarkable thing that will happen with a robot where a person will communicate when they would not otherwise,” he said.

Hartman didn’t start out with that idea, he said in an interview. He is an entrepreneur who became interested in robotics a few years ago.

“I had friends who were doing things with hardware, and I really wanted to expand into cool things, things that were connected versus just websites and apps,” he said.

He decided on creating a startup focused on robots, but didn’t realize there would be a connection with special-needs individuals. That realization came after a technology fair where Robauto showed off various robots to 500 to 600 people, he said.

“I really wanted to see how people interacted with a robot versus a computer. We just watched how they were interacting, and found that it was really strange. Everyone kept treating these robots much different[ly] than the computer, even if they had a similar program running,” Hartman said. “There was definitely a connection there.”

Then something unexpected happened. Word about the exhibit got out to parents of autistic children, and they began visiting it.

“They started bringing their kids in, and a couple of instances we saw a child or young adult have a tantrum where they were not responding to the parent. In multiple cases we fired up a robot, and it completely pulled them out of whatever mode they were in and got them to calm down and pay attention,” Hartman said.

Hartman has since learned that there are academic researchers who also are testing to see if robots can help autistic children and adults. The problem with those efforts, in Hartman’s view, is that they are too expensive for families, schools, and treatment centers.

That gave Hartman and his team the idea to build an affordable robot that could be sold for less than $500. But they still needed to develop a prototype. At the time, he was based in Florida, so he worked with a center for special-needs adults in Jacksonville to refine the prototype. Robauto also went through the Healthbox startup accelerator in Florida, where the company raised $50,000 and began a partnership with the Florida Blue health insurance company.

They learned some unexpected lessons, Hartman said. Like that autistic drivers found it much easier to use the type of steering controls you’d see on a remote control car than an iPhone interface. They also learned that activating the robot through voice commands didn’t work well, and they also made changes to the robot’s voice.

The health-insurance collaboration ultimately yielded the first prototype, a four-wheeled vehicle with a spherical head that’s named the Robauto One. It can talk, drive around, and has a camera that can record its interactions with people and gather data.

It’s not the world’s most advanced robot, but the company’s testing showed simplicity is a virtue.

“It’s fairly simple and functional on purpose,” Hartman said. “They need a robot, the robot works. The issue is not how complicated it is, it’s getting one in their hands.”

Robauto wants more data that will help it further refine the prototype. Hartman said Robauto’s next goal is to produce 100 robots and get them to schools and centers for autistic and cognitively impaired children and adults.

“We have requests from all over the world” to get a test robot, Hartman said, and Robauto still is accepting names of potential testing partners.

If all goes well, Robauto One could be in production by the end of the year, he said.

Michael Davidson is the editor of Xconomy Boulder/Denver. He covers startups, venture capital, clean tech, energy, aerospace, telecoms, and whatever else happens above 5,280 feet. Contact him at mdavidson@xconomy.com. Follow @MichaelXBD

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